Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 2)

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question–which is really about the authorship of the whole Pentateuch, not just the creation accounts–I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses, such as the account of his death and the various explanations that his contemporaries would not have required.  Recognizing this helps us not to have to ground our confidence in the inspiration and authority of these writings on the belief that Moses wrote every single word of them.

It’s one thing, however, to acknowledge a few likely additions to a body of material that we still consider to have been written almost entirely by Moses; it’s another thing to argue, in keeping with the so-called Documentary Hypothesis, that the Pentateuch was actually woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history.  In this post I will summarize the basic claims of that position.  In my next post, I will discuss some of the biblical evidence that is offered in support for it.  And in my final post in this series, I will then try to show how the traditional belief in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch can be put in positive and constructive dialogue with the Documentary Hypothesis.

The best popular description I know of that position is found in the book Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman.  He argues that some time before the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C., two complementary accounts of Israelite history from the patriarchs up to the time of Moses, “J” or Yahwist and “E” or Elohist, were composed in the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel, respectively.  When refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel escaped from the Assyrians into the southern kingdom of Judah, they brought their historical epic with them, and the two versions were woven together to form the historical portion of the books we know know as Genesis through Numbers.

During the reign of Josiah, Friedman continues, someone else picked up the story starting in the time of Moses and carried it up through the time of that king, finishing the work “around the year 622 B.C.”  This document, “D” or Deuteronomist, eventually comprised the books from Deuteronomy through Kings.

Then, Friedman says, “someone who was alive and writing before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.” and who “knew the JE text, in its combined form, intimately” composed or assembled a “collection of Priestly laws and stories . . . as an alternative to JE,” to bring out different themes and emphases as lessons from Israel’s history.  But finally, in what Friedman calls a “great irony,” someone (he believes it was Ezra, upon the return from the Babylonian exile) combined this work, the “P” or Priestly account, with JE and D to produce the continuous work, Genesis through Kings, with which the Old Testament as we know it now opens.

Is there any biblical evidence for this version of the way the Pentateuch (and the next several books of the Bible) were put together?  I’ll look at that question next time.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 1)

Rembrandt, “Moses With the Ten Commandments.” Did Moses write out the whole body of law known as the Pentateuch?

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

While your question has to do with the Genesis creation account specifically, it raises an issue that applies to the entire Pentateuch.  Did Moses really write the so-called “books of Moses,” or were they instead put together over later centuries from different works by various authors?

This is an involved and complicated topic that has generated a vast body of literature, both scholarly and popular, over the centuries, and it will be difficult to do justice to it in the context of a blog.  But I will devote my next few posts to this question and try to explain things as I understand them as best I can.

Let me begin in this post with the observation that the “books of Moses” (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as we know them today could not have been written entirely by Moses.  He obviously did not write the account of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy, for example.  But there are other things in the Pentateuch that seem very unlikely to have been written by Moses as well.

For example, when Abram first arrives in the land of Canaan, the narrative in Genesis observes, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”  Abram (later known as Abraham) and his descendants will have various dealings with the Canaanites, and the narrative is preparing the reader for this.  But why would this have to be explained to an original audience living in the time of Moses, when the Canaanites were still in the land?  It only makes sense that this this notation was added for a later audience, living at a time when the Canaanites were no longer there.

Similarly, when Moses is describing at the beginning of Deuteronomy the conquests he has just led on the east side of the Jordan, as he explains how half the tribe of Manasseh occupied the former territory of Og the king of Bashan, he specifies that “Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, took the whole region of Argob.”  The text then notes that this region “was named after him, so that to this day Bashan is called Havvoth Jair.”  There would be no reason for Moses to tell his contemporaries that a name a region had just been given was still in use.  Rather, this explanation, too, must have been added for the benefit of a later audience.

Places like these help us recognize that as the material in the Pentateuch was transmitted by the Israelites down through the generations, it was edited and supplemented for the benefit of later readers.  And so, whatever way we understand the nature of biblical inspiration, we need to accept that not every word of the Pentateuch was written by Moses.  Somehow the Bible can be the inspired word of God even if it includes later editorial emendations to the works originally created by the prophets and apostles.

This opens the door for us to consider objectively, without our confidence in the Bible as the word of God being at stake, the possibility that the Pentateuch may actually have been assembled from layers of tradition that go back ultimately to Moses, but which also include the contributions of later editors and custodians.  I’ll summarize the arguments to this effect represented by Hyers’ article, which follows a prevailing view in Old Testament studies, in my next post.

Where do the various topics in 1 Corinthians come from?

Q.  My Sunday school class has just started studying 1 Corinthians. I have your study guide and I agree that the questions Paul addresses are of two sorts, some that were asked in person and some that were asked in a letter (that we do not have today).

My question is, what are the clues to do the sorting? Before your book I just thought that the division came about halfway through 1 Corinthians where Paul says, “Now for the matters you wrote about.”  I thought that everything after that was addressing the questions from the Corinthians’ letter, and everything before that was addressing the questions delivered in person.  But your book does not sort them that way, so I was wondering what clues I might be missing.

Here is how my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters divides up the material in 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians Outline
(click to enlarge)

You’ll see that I distinguish between “things Paul heard about” and “things the Corinthians wrote about,” rather than between “things the Corinthians asked about in person” and “things the Corinthians asked about by letter.”  This helps account for the way I sort out the material a little bit differently from the way you are used to.

I agree that it’s a perfectly straightforward reading of the epistle to understand that starting at the point where Paul says, “Now for the matters you wrote about,” he is answering questions that the Corinthians have asked him by letter.  That’s really the only explicit indication he gives of the distinction between where the questions have come from.  So why do I feel that two of the topics he addresses after this point (head coverings and the Lord’s Supper) actually aren’t things the Corinthians have asked about?

It’s because of the way Paul characteristically introduces topics as he takes them up in the letter.  Paul explains when he begins to address his first topic, divisions in the church, that “some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.”  Paul is in Ephesus, across the Aegean Sea from Corinth, and apparently some servants of a woman named Chloe (presumably a member of the community of Jesus’ followers in Ephesus) have just returned from Corinth with disturbing news of problems in the community there that weren’t mentioned in the recent letter to Paul.  So these aren’t so much matters that the Corinthians have asked about verbally via these servants; rather, they are matters that the servants have reported back to Paul.

And so Paul also says, as he takes up his next topic, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you.”  And since he does not refer to “the matters you wrote about” until after he has addressed his next two topics, lawsuits within the community and believers going to prostitutes, it appears that these are matters he has heard about from Chloe’s servants as well.

As Paul does take up the topics from the Corinthians’ letter, he characteristically introduces each one with a standard formula, peri de, translated “now for” or “now about” in the NIV.  This is how he introduces his discussions of abstinence within marriage, whether to get married, food offered to idols, spiritual gifts, and the collection for the poor.  Paul does not begin his discussion of the resurrection with this formula, but he nevertheless appears to be responding directly to their questions in what he writes on this topic.

By contrast, when Paul talks about the observance of the Lord’s Supper, he begins not with the formula peri de but once again by saying, “I hear that . . .”  He doesn’t say this specifically when introducing the topic of head coverings, but he does use language of “praise” that is reminiscent of his adjacent discussion of the Lord’s Supper.  Regarding head coverings he says, “I praise you for . . . holding to the traditions . . . but I want you to realize . . . ,” and about the Lord’s Supper he says, “I have no praise for you.”

These are admittedly subtle indications that are open to different interpretations.  Nothing in them absolute rules out the division of material that you’re used to.  But if we do take them as cues to where the topics in 1 Corinthians may have come from, they suggest that Paul is actually grouping his material somewhat thematically in places.  He ends his opening discussion of things he has “heard about” with a teaching against going to prostitutes, and begins his discussion of the matters the Corinthians “wrote about” with thematically related teachings on sexual relations within marriage.  And since the teaching about spiritual gifts has largely to do with their use in worship, he addresses two other topics related to worship, head coverings and the Lord’s Supper, just beforehand, even though they are matters he has presumably “heard about” rather than matters the Corinthians have “written about.”  So in my understanding at least, Paul is not strictly dividing the two types of topics into separate sections of his letter.

I hope this explanation is helpful.  And I wish you all the best as you teach this fascinating letter in your Sunday School class!

Did the apostle John write the book of Revelation?

Q. Thank you very much for your recent post about whether the apostle John was the author of the gospel of John. This has been a question at the back of my mind for some time and it’s great to hear your reasons for believing John to be the author. I was also wondering about the authorship of the book of Revelation. In your study guide to Revelation you state that its author was unlikely to be the apostle John since in the Gospel of John and his letters he never refers to himself as John, but goes by “the elder” or “the one whom Jesus loved.”  Along with that textual evidence, I was wondering what other evidence supports this view. Has the church traditionally seen the apostle John as the author, or is that a more recent phenomenon?

“St. John Receiving His Revelation” from the Apocalypse of St. Sever (11th century). Church art customarily follows the traditional view in ascribing the book to the apostle John.

We need to recognize that there was a tendency within the early church to accept that the books they read in worship and considered reliable had been written by the apostles or else by their close companions (such as Luke).  This was in keeping with the growing belief within the community that these books were authoritative.  And so we find early figures such as Ireneus, Tertullian, Origen, etc. ascribing the book of Revelation to the apostle John.

Even so—and by contrast with most other New Testament books—there were some who questioned Revelation’s apostolic authorship.  In his late third-century Ecclesiastical History, for example, Eusebius quotes Dionysius of Alexandria (who lived a generation earlier) as saying the following about Revelation:

“That this book is the work of one John, I do not deny. And I agree also that it is the work of a holy and inspired man. But I cannot readily admit that he was the apostle, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, by whom the Gospel of John and the Catholic Epistle were written.  For I judge from the character of both, and the forms of expression, and the entire execution of the book, that it is not his . . .  I do not deny that the other writer saw a revelation and received knowledge and prophecy. I perceive, however, that his dialect and language are not accurate Greek, but that he uses barbarous idioms, and, in some places, solecisms.” (VII.25)

So in the case of every New Testament book, when asking about authorship, we have to reckon with the tendency of the early church to ascribe accepted books to apostolic sources.  And we need to be prepared to critique this tendency in light of evidence that is internal to the book (as Dionysius did in the case of the book of Revelation less than two hundred years after it was written).

When it comes to the authorship of Revelation, in addition to the evidence you cited (the author’s own self-description), we can note, as I also say in the study guide (you’ll hear echoes of Dionysius here), that “the language, themes, and perspectives of the apostle’s writings are very different from those in Revelation.”

This is not a simple matter of style or genre; great authors can write in a variety of styles.  (If we didn’t know better, we’d never imagine that James Joyce wrote The Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in a more conventional style, and then changed styles so drastically to write Ulysses, and then did so yet again for Finnegan’s Wake.)

Rather, the perspectives are different.  The gospel of John is said to have a “vertical eschatology.”  That is, eschatological realities are understood to be present now, breaking in from the heavenly realm.  For example, when Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” and she replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day,” Jesus counters, “I am the resurrection and the life” (now).

Revelation, by contrast, has a “horizontal eschatology.”  Eschatological realities are coming in the future and believers must await them faithfully and hopefully, enduring in order to “overcome.”

For reasons like these I consider someone other than the apostle John, but a person who was nevertheless named John, to have been the author of Revelation.

Did the apostle John really write the gospel of John?

Q.  I’m reading through your study guide to the gospel of John and getting a lot out of it, but I do have one question for you.  Why do you consider the apostle John to be the author of this gospel?  Isn’t it the consensus of New Testament scholars that it was instead the product of a later community that looked back to John as its founder and inspiration?

To begin to answer your question, let me appeal to a helpful distinction that Raymond E. Brown introduces as he is discussing the issue of authorship in his influential commentary on the gospel of John.  Brown notes that ancient works had both an “author” and a “writer.” He explains that “the writers run the gamut from recording secretaries who slavishly copied down the author’s dictation to highly independent collaborators who, working from a sketch of the author’s ideas, gave their own literary style to the final work.”

I think it is quite possible that the writers of the gospel of John were disciples or followers who worked the apostle’s recollections and teachings into the form we find them today.  But I would still say that the author of this work, in the sense of the person essentially responsible for its content, was indeed the apostle John.

The scholarly debate about authorship is ongoing (some leading New Testament scholars continue to argue for John as the author in the most active sense), but I won’t review it here in this post.  Good summaries of it can be found in most commentaries on the gospel of John, and I would recommend Brown’s particularly.  Instead, let me discuss one feature of the gospel that I feel points strongly in the direction of John having been recognized from a very early date as essentially responsible for its content.

The gospel appears to end with the assertion that “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  This rounds out the main thematic development nicely.

But then there is an epilogue, apparently added later, whose main purpose seems to be to correct the mistaken impression that Jesus had said the apostle John would not die before he returned.  Reading between the lines a bit, we can recognize that when this epilogue was added, John had just died, and  his death was undermining confidence in the gospel of John itself, on the part of those who believed he wouldn’t die.  That’s why the disclaimer was needed.

The fact that it was necessary to attach such an epilogue to the gospel, to preserve its credibility, strongly suggests that the gospel was largely completed before John died, and that it was considered within his lifetime to contain his teachings and recollections.  Otherwise, his death would not have affected the reception of the written gospel so strongly.  And it’s hard to imagine that anyone responsible in any sense for a work whose ethical teachings are so elevated would have allowed this belief in his authorship to persist if it had been inaccurate.

In short, I feel that the epilogue that has been added to the gospel of John constitutes very early evidence, from just after the apostle’s own lifetime, that he was considered its “author” to such an extent that its credibility rested on his personal credibility.

That is why I am very comfortable, despite the ongoing scholarly conversation, with the idea that the apostle John was the author of the gospel of John.  But even so, the meaning and the message of this gospel can be appreciated without a commitment to any particular theory of authorship.

The image of John the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Why alphabetical order varies slightly in Hebrew (and why this matters)

The Hebrew alphabet in the conventional order. Read right to left, top to bottom. ‘Ayin and pe are at the far right and second from right, respectively, in the fourth row.

The Hebrew alphabet developed out of the Phoenician alphabet and it generally follows the same order for the letters.  However, there is evidence in the Hebrew Bible of a slight variation in which the order of the sixteenth and seventeenth letters, ‘ayin and pe, is reversed.  This is significant, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

We know about these different orders because about a dozen compositions in the Bible are acrostics, in which consecutive lines (or half-lines, or pairs of lines, etc.) begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

In Psalms 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145, in the first poem in Lamentations, and in the poem about a noble wife at the end of Proverbs, ‘ayin precedes pe.

But in Psalm 9-10, in the second, third, and fourth poems in Lamentations, and in the Septuagint text of the poem about a noble wife, the pe line precedes the ‘ayin line.

So why the occasional variation in alphabetical order in the case of these two letters, as attested by these few compositions?  Many different theories have been advanced; I’m most convinced by the one that Julius Boehmer proposed over a hundred years ago.  He suggested that alphabetically consecutive pairs of letters that formed two-letter words—these are relatively rare in Hebrew—were used in magical texts:  ‘ab (father), gad (good fortune), hu’ (him), etc.  No two-letter words could be formed from samek + ‘ayin, the fifteenth and sixteenth letters in the conventional order. But transposing ‘ayin and pe yielded sap (basin, goblet) and ‘ets (wood).

If the order of ‘ayin and pe was reversed for these purposes, this could have led to a second alphabetical order coming into limited circulation.  This alternative order is seemingly reflected in a few biblical acrostics. But of course the biblical authors were using it without any magical intent.  And that is where we see the significance of this other order.

If Boehmer’s theory is true,* this would be one more example of how the biblical authors made use of the cultural goods they found around them to tell the story of God’s dealings with their own community, appropriating and redeploying those goods without prejudice as to their origins or previous uses.  Psalm 29, for example, depicts Yahweh as a storm god, using language that might previously have been applied to Baal—the imagery certainly was.  Canaanite temples had three parts: an outer court, an inner sanctuary, and a most holy place at their core; Israel’s tabernacle and temple followed this same pattern.

Clearly God and the people of God, according to the way their story is told in the Bible, were not bothered by the idea that certain forms or images might have been somehow “tainted” by associations with idolatry.  Psalm 24 proclaims that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it,” and in the case of the alphabet, that might even include an order that originally arose from a desire to create magical incantations.  These possible origins don’t taint the letters; as an alphabet, they’re simply a neutral tool that can be used to tell the story of God, even as part of the inspired Scriptures.

So we today are free to use cultural forms, images, stories, and designs from a variety of sources in order to communicate the message about God’s work in our world in ways that our listeners will find accessible and meaningful.  So long as we do not duplicate any previous message that is contrary to God’s purposes, the forms are freely available for our use.  “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

*While Boehmer’s proposal is now over a hundred years old, I do not feel that any more plausible explanation has been advanced.  For a survey of the issue, see Homer Heater, “Structure and Meaning in Lamentations,” Vital Old Testament Issues (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1996), pp. 157-159, available online at this link.

Was Acts really written around 150 AD?

Q.  Recently at our Bible Study someone mentioned that the book of Acts was written much later than the gospel of Luke (like about 150 AD). This was released by the Jesus Seminar — which already has my warning lights blinking. Is there any concrete evidence (like in Church history) to refute this?

Some scholars believe that there are allusions to the book of Acts in the first epistle of Clement, which is generally dated to the 90s AD.  If these are indeed allusions, they would be a “smoking gun” that positively ruled out a date of 150 AD.

Irenaeus of Lyon, who was born around 120 AD, makes definite references to the book of Acts in Against Heresies, which he likely wrote around 180 AD.  In III:12.1, for example, he offers this nearly verbatim quotation from the book: “The Apostle Peter, therefore, after the resurrection of the Lord, and His assumption into the heavens, being desirous of filling up the number of the twelve apostles, and in electing into the place of Judas any substitute who should be chosen by God, thus addressed those who were present: ‘Men and brethren, this Scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost, by the mouth of David, spake before concerning Judas, which was made guide to them that took Jesus. For he was numbered with us: … Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein; and, His bishop-rick let another take.'”  This is not definitive proof of a first-century date for Acts, but it’s highly unlikely that Irenaeus would treat Acts as so authoritative if that book had only been around for a few decades.

But I think the main evidence for the date of Acts comes from the ending of the book itself.  It leaves Paul in prison, with the outcome of his trial undetermined.  Certainly if it had been known at the time of writing that Paul had been acquitted and released, Luke would have included this information, since he takes pains throughout the book to demonstrate that Jesus’ followers are good citizens–reasonable, peaceful, and charitable–on good terms with Roman officials.  (Acts is dedicated to Theophilus and Luke addresses him as “most excellent,” using a title customarily reserved for such officials, so they are a primary audience for the book.)

In other words, what is known in historiography as the “criterion of embarrassment” (an author wants to say something, but can’t, or has to explain something difficult) makes the book of Acts itself a piece of historical evidence for its own original composition sometime during the lifetime of Paul, meaning no later than the 60s AD.

Uncial 0189, the oldest surviving parchment manuscript of the New Testament, containing a fragment from the book of Acts, dated to around AD 200

Is there any biblical evidence that Jeremiah didn’t write Lamentations?

The only real concerns we’ve ever heard about the book introductions in The Books of the Bible have been about the few cases in which we’ve suggested that a book traditionally attributed to a known figure may have been written instead by one or more unknown authors.

Consider the case of Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah.  Lamentations directly follows Jeremiah in most English Bibles.  But in The Books of the Bible, it’s placed with Psalms and Song of Songs as another collection of lyric poetry potentially by a variety of authors.  In the Invitation to Lamentations, we observe that “the authors’ names aren’t given” for any its five songs.

These three books—Psalms, Lamentations, and Song of Songs—are also treated together in my study guide to lyric poetry in the Understanding the Books of the Bible series.  In that guide I say similarly that “we don’t know for certain who wrote” the songs in Lamentations.

But if we don’t know for certain, why not attribute them to Jeremiah, in keeping with long-standing Jewish and Christian tradition?  If the Bible itself doesn’t tell us, why not trust this tradition, rather than offering some other explanation?

Actually, the Bible does present two compelling pieces of evidence that Jeremiah did not write Lamentations.

First, the songs in Lamentations show that their author(s) had first-hand, eyewitness knowledge of the conditions in the ruined city of Jerusalem in the days and weeks following its destruction by the Babylonians.  The songs are written from the viewpoint of someone within the city who sees what is happening there and is calling out to others to respond with grief and compassion.

But according to the Bible, Jeremiah was never in the city of Jerusalem after it was destroyed.  The historical narrative about this event in the book of Jeremiah explains that the Babylonians removed him from Jerusalem and brought him to his home town of Anathoth before they destroyed the city.  Later he was mistakenly rounded up for deportation to Babylon and taken to Ramah, but he was recognized and sent back to Mizpah.  And from there, the surviving Israelites took him with them to Egypt.

The Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and carry the surviving Judeans into exile (from L’Histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament, 1670, illustrator unknown)

The only way we can place Jeremiah in Jerusalem after its destruction, where he could have written Lamentations from an eyewitness perspective, is to suppose that he made a visit to the city that isn’t recorded in the Bible.  But then we would be pitting something the Bible doesn’t say against what it actually says:  that Jeremiah went to Anathoth, Ramah, Mizpah, and Egypt, but never back to Jerusalem.

The other piece of evidence that Jeremiah didn’t write Lamentations is found within the book itself.  The first four songs are acrostics, poems whose successive lines begin with the consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.  The second, third, and fourth poems evidence a variation in the letter sequence: the letter pe precedes the letter ‘ayin.

It’s not understood exactly how this variation originated (it’s found in some other biblical acrostics as well), but it seems that two slightly different alphabetical sequences were in circulation in ancient Israel.  A person might be familiar with one sequence or another, but it’s highly unlikely that a single poet composing acrostics for a specific occasion would start with one understanding of alphabetical order and then change to a different one.  It’s much more likely that the songs in Lamentations are the work of more than one author, precisely because they reflect two different understandings of alphabetical order.

Taken together, these two pieces of biblical evidence suggest that the songs in Lamentations were not written by Jeremiah, but rather by two or more unknown poets who were, as we say in our Invitation to Lamentations, “people of faith putting into words their struggle to understand how God could allow such suffering and devastation.”  We may not know their names, but we can still appreciate how God inspired them to speak to a question that believers have struggled with throughout the centuries.

Who was the book of Hebrews written to?

Q. A friend and I recently read out loud through the book of Hebrews using The Books of the Bible.  I can definitely recommend this way of experiencing the Bible.

We do have a question, though.  Your introduction says that the recipients of this letter “seem to have lived in Italy.” But as we read through Hebrews, it seemed to us that it was addressing instead a pre-70 A.D. Jerusalem audience—people who needed encouragement to stand strong while on the receiving end of persecution from temple-observant Jews.  This seemed to us to account better for the letter’s encouragement to persevere and endure persecution.

We thought that the reference in the letter to people “from Italy” sending their greetings was actually describing people who were in Italy at the time, and not, as you say, people who used to live there who were now sending greetings back to their friends in Rome.

We don’t know any Greek and we haven’t looked in any commentaries; this is simply two reasonable laymen looking at each other and reflecting on what we’ve read—both in the text, as well as in the preceding intro.

It strikes me that the questions you’re asking are the kind of broad and comprehensive ones that arise naturally from the consideration of an entire book. You and your friend clearly got the big picture as you read through and listened to the book of Hebrews.  All the more reason to present the Bible in a format that encourages that kind of experience!

Questions like yours, about the background to a whole book, won’t necessarily lead you to a “gem of the day” devotional thought that you can carry around with you.  But they still matter tremendously.  As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write in their book How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, we can never really recognize what the Bible is saying to “us now” until we appreciate what it was saying to “them then.”  All of the biblical documents arise out of real-life experiences of communities of believers.  The better we can understand those situations, the more clearly we can hear how the word of God was speaking into them, and so into our situation as well.  Anything less does not do justice to the believers whose faith and courage in following Jesus brought us the New Testament in the first place.

You’ve raised an interesting question about the book of Hebrews that other readers and interpreters have also posed.  Why couldn’t the audience of this book have been in Jerusalem, where we would expect the strongest opposition from those who wanted to maintain temple observances and sacrifices?  Why couldn’t the greetings of “those from Italy” be from people who were actually living in Italy, meaning that the book was sent from there, not to there?

The answers to these questions don’t depend on knowing Greek.  The Greek phrase translated as “those from Italy” could mean either people who live in Italy or people who came from Italy.  But there are some other things in the epistle that suggest it wasn’t written to people living in Jerusalem:

– The writer says near the beginning, “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.”  So neither the writer nor the audience were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus.  If this letter was addressed to believers in Jerusalem before AD 70, it’s almost certain that some of them would have seen and heard Jesus when he was alive on earth.

– From the rest of the New Testament we know that the believers in Jerusalem were very poor.  (This is why, for example, Paul took up a collection from wealthier believers elsewhere in the empire to help them.)  But the writer to the Hebrews notes, “You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you had better and lasting possessions.”  This would fit the wealthy situation in Italy much better.

–  The writer also says, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”  This also wouldn’t fit the situation of the Jerusalem believers, who had already seen some of their number killed for their faith.  But there was a large and strong Jewish community in Rome, and Hebrews could be reflecting the threat that was beginning to be perceived from them.

–  Finally, as I note in the introductory session to Hebrews in my Deuteronomy/Hebrews study guide, “At the end the author calls the whole work a ‘word of exhortation,’ the technical term for a sermon or homily in the Jewish synagogue.”  There were, of course, synagogues in Palestine as in other parts of the empire, but if the question is whether the letter arises out of Diaspora Judaism or temple observance in Jerusalem, the synagogue language points more naturally towards the Diaspora.

None of these considerations are, of course, absolutely conclusive, but they are the kind of things that lead me to believe that Hebrews was written to the community of Jesus’ followers in Rome, not in Jerusalem.

Ancient Rome, the likely location of the people addressed in the book of Hebrews.